Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Preview of the Season: Stoke

Switch: Not like this. Not like this.

In this scene Switch, a minor character, is about to be killed in the matrix by having her connection severed between her mind and body by Cypher, a traitorous crewmember back in the ‘real’ world. Knowing she is about to die, and having already seen her boyfriend Apoc die, Switch is disconsolate with despair. I would imagine most Stoke fans are in a similar state of mind looking ahead at the coming season.

Sitting in the garden at a mate’s house having some BBQ, I was shown three predictions of the final table for this year’s Premier League that had been made earlier. There was little overall consensus but one thing stood out: the importance of the manager in their final league position. They all thought Chelsea would win the league with the experience of Mourinho. They also thought that Mark Hughes would take Stoke down.

Long time manager Tony Pulis, overseer of the most sustained period of success in Stoke’s history, has been let go. There are a number of good reasons why Stoke may have wanted to move on from him at this stage, the major one being his inability or unwillingness to change his overly direct style of play. Rumours abounded last season that Pulis was fighting an internal war against his chief scout and former ally, Lindsay Parsons, over playing style. This is said to have severely damaged Pulis’s support from owner Peter Coates and may well be a contributing factor to his dismissal.
The tallest man in the Premier League
plays for Stoke. Coincidence?  

Secondly, Coates may have decided that whilst Pulis’s direct style was effective in keeping Stoke in a lower mid-table berth, that was the its limit. This is reflected in their finishes since their return to the top flight in the ’08-’09 season. Stoke have finished 12th, 11th, 13th and 13th showing little to no improvement in aesthetic style or results despite Coates’ substantial investment in the team. A miserable run of 5 points in 13 games towards the end of last season contributed heavily to the mutual termination of Tony Pulis’s contract.

Following his dismal efforts with QPR last season most fans would have avoided Hughes like sensible people avoid cholera. Not so, the management at Stoke. Despite having the whole footballing world to choose from at the start of this summer, Stoke quickly plumbed for English football’s pariah, Mark Hughes, in what looked to be a panicked appointment. It appeared from the speed at which the appointment was made that Coates feared being left, like Wolves were when they sacked Mick McCarthy, with nobody wanting the job.

The Premier League's most dominant aerial threats go,
ahem, head to head...
Nobody wanting the job could have been a serious possibility given the make up of the squad and the lack of spending money apparently available this summer. Stoke were by far and away the most direct/long ball side in the division averaging a mere 43.3% possession. Stoke also has the lowest pass success rate (70.2%) in the league, another key indicator of their passing game resembling a spot the ball competition. The final statistic that shows their reliance on the long ball and set pieces is that Stoke won 28.9 aerial duals per match, 7.8 higher than West Ham the placed second team, whilst contesting 1853 aerial duals in the season, 50% more than the average. This style is often defended as being a ‘percentages game’ but the stats don’t add up to that. Stoke had the least shots in the Premier League last season, averaging a measly 10.2 per game and a chronic 8.7 away from home. It will be difficult to remove this entrenched style and encourage a more aesthetically pleasing (and more effective in an attacking sense) short passing style on this squad.

If the goal at the Britannia Stadium was to replace Pulis’s direct style with a more aesthetically pleasing passing game then why did they appoint Hughes, a coach with no fixed style or ideological beliefs in how football should be played? That Hughes has no abiding concept of how he wants football to be played is shown by his haphazard signings at QPR last season. Like a Fifa player indiscriminately signing players based entirely on individual talent rather than their suitability for his system, Hughes created one of the least motivated and coherent teams the Premier League has ever seen. There was no shortage of individual talent in the likes of Djibril Cisse, Park Ji Sung, Adel Taarabt, Estaban Granero and Shaun Wright-Phillips but there was no cohesion or guiding tactical principal in their acquisition. A mish mash of disparate parts, QPR played like a group of perfect strangers for the majority
A tough job for Sparky. Can he he put a charge into his
new team and ignite a push for mid-table?
of the season, ending up regularly getting beaten like a red headed stepchild.

Some managers make up for a lack of tactical skill with excellent motivational and man-management skills. Sir Alex Ferguson, though an under-rated tactical mind, never brought any tactical innovation or distinctive style to the league. His strength was to be able to consistently motivate his players to win. The motivational aspect will have to be Hughes’s strong point this season. Stoke, unlike most of the other mid-table clubs, have not made significant investments so far this transfer window. Hughes will have to mould the existing squad, a squad entirely fashioned to play direct football, with care and diligence. Stoke were the only team last season to score more goals from set pieces than open play. If Hughes tries to change things too fast it may have a disastrous effect of removing the element of their play that made them competitive without replacing it with any effective substitute.

Hughes has had a tough time as a manager recently and this season will be his biggest yet. Hughes won’t have a lot of rope to play with and changing the style won’t be easy. A teething period is to be expected but given his recent track record his honeymoon period will be shorter than Peter Crouch’s list of conquests. A mid-table finish, with this Stoke side, could see a form of redemption for Hughes. Failure and relegation, or maybe even the threat of relegation, will almost certainly see him forced to renew his career as a manager in the lower tiers of English Football.